No surprise, but Americans are consuming and spending less since the coronavirus kicked in. Retail sales dropped to 8.7 percent in March, the largest month-over-month decline since the Census Bureau started tracking this data. Previously, the sharpest decline was less than half this – at 3.9 percent from October 2008 to November 2008, during the previous economic crisis. The reduction in consumer spending is due in part to lockdowns, spending more time at home for fear of the virus, and the economic impact – whether it’s losing a job, reduced hours, or in anticipation of tougher times ahead.
While consumer spending is down at a net level, there appear to be some winners and some losers in the post-COVID world of staying in and working from home. Restaurants and apparel are the hardest hit, whereas online retailers, home, garden, grocery, and alcohol sales are all up.
The decline and shift in consumer spending are having a strong negative impact on state sales tax revenues. Nationwide, sales taxes account for approximately 20 percent of all state revenue, so the decline in consumer spending will have a material impact on state budgets. As a result, states are looking at new ways to generate or increase revenue to offset the trend. Below we’ll look at three ways states are looking to raise taxes to make up for holes in their budgets.
Eating out less and working from home mean Americans are spending more at the grocery store; approximately 13 percent more year-over-year, per Census data. The issue for states is that groceries are generally not taxed or low-taxed, although there are a few items that apply the full tax rate.
Kansas, for example, applies the full sales tax rate to groceries. The consequence of this is that grocery sales make up about 15 percent of Kansas’ total sales tax revenue. The consequence of this policy is that the state’s sales tax revenue has barely taken a hit year-to-date.
States are taking notice and may move to the trend of taxing groceries as a way to recover part of their declining sales tax revenues.
Another trend is the increase in streaming services and one-time rentals/purchases of digital goods for entertainment and working at home. Currently, 22 states tax streaming services, and 30 states tax digital goods. Other states will look to start taxing these services as well, and digital taxes will start to expand into cloud storage and other services as more people work remotely.
Sin taxes are taxes on goods and services that are “bad” for us; think alcohol, tobacco, gambling, and marijuana (where it’s legal). Increases in sin taxes are generally easier to pass as they don’t apply to the overall general population and politicians can play the moral angle.
During the last recession, for example, lawmakers in more than 12 states increased tobacco and liquor taxes. Newer sin taxes are being instituted, such as those on vaping equipment and supplies.
The exact form and structure will vary, but one thing is certain: States will institute or increase taxes in areas where the money is being spent to ensure their sales tax revenue remains stable.
Small businesses nationwide were already facing cash problems before the COVID-19 pandemic, according to McKinsey & Company. The firm found that almost one-third of small businesses were either seeing losses or making just enough to stay in business, but not realizing profitability.
Looking at businesses selling essential and non-essential items, McKinsey & Company reports that before satisfying their “interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization” obligations and accountings, they were facing challenging times. When it comes to selling essential items, such as food, business owners in this industry only had margins of 5 percent. For businesses selling non-essential items, this sector saw margins of less than 10 percent.
Restaurants provide an example of one way that outfits can pivot and increase margins by modifying their business models. While the Harvard Business Review (HBR) explains that restaurants have created additional seating near the kitchen to maintain social distancing, other examples of business model changes include increasing takeout, delivery, and catering as a way to increase sales for businesses with limited in-store dining.
While these ideas are simply expanding upon existing models to make up for lost in-dining experiences, HBR offers another way that a restaurant can better distinguish its establishment: developing a subscription model for customers. By slimming down menu choices for more efficient and faster preparation, restaurants could give customers the option to receive a certain number of meals per week or day for a fixed price.
While there are different types of margins for business owners to keep an eye on, an important one is a gross margin and how it impacts a business’ bottom line. Since the onset of COVID-19, businesses have been trying to survive as we work our way through the pandemic.
Regardless of the type of product being sold, by reducing the number of options available to customers, businesses can increase their margins by still meeting customer demand for necessities while also getting better prices from their suppliers through larger orders. This strategy also can be applied with contract manufacturers.
Re-engineering products and the ingredients that go into them can help to increase margins. For example, if there is a variety of pre-packaged foods that sell for the same price, but there are specialty or costlier ingredients like meat instead of vegetables, pausing selling pre-packed meals with meat can increase profit margins.
McKinsey & Company explains that small businesses are able to increase their hygiene and safety protocols by encouraging and implementing contactless experiences. Along with reducing person-to-person contact by using mobile apps, restaurants also have made delivery and takeout a bigger part of their sales.
With small businesses like boutiques and farmers, HBR illustrates how these entities can explore different sales channels. With stores facing shortages and an inability to stock essential goods – especially food items – small farmers saw an opportunity to reinvent their business models after restaurants and gourmet markets dropped purchases from them during the stay-at-home orders.
An investment in an online presence, shipping and logistics, and sustained sales and marketing efforts have real potential for businesses to become profitable as trends point to a direct-to-consumer model. However, going with a digital storefront such as Shopify and selling directly to retail customers, HBR pointed out that some farmers are able to capture local customers (15 miles or less). This shows how farmers have been able to migrate from one source of revenue to another.
While the pandemic is ongoing, these are just a few ways that companies can implement new strategies to generate cash flow and attempt to survive the COVID-19 pandemic.
With gold hitting $2,000 an ounce in recent days, coupled with the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy creating a lot of liquidity, how will markets perform for the rest of 2020 and beyond?
Based on a reading from the Federal Reserve’s minutes from its July 28 to July 29 meeting, the Fed remarked that the ongoing pandemic would continue to put a strain on the economy, slowing expansion and causing additional damage to the country’s monetary framework.
The Fed highlighted the nation’s GDP drop by 32.9 percent in the second quarter. While Q3 growth is expected to be positive, that was not quantified. Additionally, the Federal government’s debt has grown by $3 trillion since the onset of COVID-19, reaching $26.6 trillion. The release of these minutes sent stock prices downward and helped the U.S. dollar gain.
Forward guidance or communication to the general public and business owners of the Fed’s goals for inflation and unemployment target figures could be upgraded, but no time frame was given. More details on how the target range for the federal funds rate’s path would be appropriate at some point, per the Federal Open Market Committee’s (FOMC) minutes. How the target range of the federal funds rate evolves is outcome-based or based upon meeting certain economic goals before rates see further movement. For now, The Fed’s mandate is to ensure full employment and price stability.
The FOMC is expected to keep the current overnight borrowing rate between 0 percent and 0.25 percent until the U.S. economy has emerged from its current situation and on course to achieve the Committee’s maximum employment and price stability goals.
The July meeting kept short-term interest rates at near-zero because the economy is still not at its pre-pandemic economic activity levels. Given that COVID-19 has already impacted the jobs picture, the value of the U.S. dollar, and how well the economy is functioning already in the near term, the FOMC see the pandemic continuing to impact economic growth in the medium term.
The Fed remarked that the U.S. Congress needs to pass another economic stimulus plan, especially when it comes to renewing unemployment insurance that recently expired. The FOMC meeting also noted that the Fed is not expected to purchase bonds to control yields on government bonds. However, it did speak to how it has played a role in buying bonds on the open market to support liquidity during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The meeting also determined that bond purchases by the Fed grew by more than $2.5 trillion, increasing to $7 trillion – up from $4.4 trillion over the course of the coronavirus pandemic. While skepticism by the Fed’s FOMC members regarding the use of purchasing bonds to manipulate the government bond yield curve wasn’t given much consideration, it’s still noteworthy to explain this versus what many refer to as quantitative easing or QE.
If the Fed’s efforts to bring down short-term interest rates, the rate that banks earn on overnight deposits, to zero with no positive economic effects, another tool the Fed has is Yield Curve Control (YCC). Whatever longer-term rate the Fed has in mind, YCC would involve an ongoing campaign of buying long-term bonds to maintain rates below its target rate by increasing the bond’s price and lowering the bond’s longer-term rates.
This is in contrast to QE, where the Fed purchases a fixed amount of bonds from the open market. It’s done by central banks to increase the money supply in hopes of spurring spending and investing by Main Street. It’s an important tool that central banks rely on when rates are at or near zero. This helps banks with their reserve requirements, giving them more liquidity to provide more loans to consumers and commercial borrowers.
Quantitative Easing Considerations
As central banks increase the money supply, it can create inflation. If it does create inflation, but there’s no measurable economic growth, this can lead to stagflation.
It is noteworthy that QE and the resulting lending attempt to stimulate the economy is effective only if individuals and commercial operations take loans and use them to spend and invest in the economy.
QE also can devalue the currency. It can help domestic manufacturers export goods (because the currency is cheaper), and anything that’s imported is more expensive. Consumers are hit with higher prices for imported goods, along with domestic producers using higher-priced imported raw materials for their final products.
With the economy still facing the headwinds of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Fed has played a major role in stabilizing the economy. While the increase of liquidity has certainly provided a lifeline for the markets, the price of gold can be seen as a hedge against this liquidity – with inflation as one potential outcome. For the rest of 2020, The Fed will be ready and able to assist the markets but will leave lingering questions about the value of the U.S. and other global currencies.
The stock market continues to perform with relative resilience, despite the current economic decline. But to be clear, without 100 percent participation in the economy – in terms of small business job creation, consumer spending, and company growth and expansion – the stock market is apt to reposition prices to reflect slower growth. With no containment or control of the pandemic on the horizon, there is plenty of uncertainty associated with future financial planning.
Anyone looking to retire in the next 10 years or so may want to take a fresh look at their current retirement income plan. In fact, they might need a Plan A, B, and C in order to stay flexible – with C being the option to continue working longer. The following are portfolio tips to consider for a 10-year time frame until retirement.
If there was one financial tip worth following pre-pandemic, it was to have liquid cash savings of six months to a year’s worth of expenses available. Workers who did are probably pretty relieved about now if they lost their job or had hours reduced. Having substantial cash available can save you from raiding retirement accounts and/or your investment portfolio.
In preparation for retirement, that cash buffer is even more important. Some advisors recommend a liquid savings fund to cover one to three years’ worth of expenses. That’s because once you’re on a fixed income, you’re not likely to replenish that account. What it can do is supplement variable retirement income that is reliant on the markets. Having a cash buffer gives investments time to recover from temporary losses so you don’t have to plunder your principal.
Status of Social Security
While you may know what your benefit level is for retirement at a certain date, be aware that your benefit could change – even after you’ve retired. Recent research has found that thanks to the loss of FICA revenues resulting from COVID-19, the Social Security Trust Fund might run out of money four years earlier than predicted: as early as 2032. You may want to consider other forms of reliable income in case your benefits are reduced in the future.
Speaking of reliable income, Olivia Mitchell, executive director of the Wharton School’s Pension Research Council, recommends that an annuity option become a staple in employer-sponsored retirement plans. Annuities generally offer an option for issuer-guaranteed income for life. With 10 years until retirement, allocating money to an annuity can help build a separate income stream to supplement Social Security benefits. Even if your employer doesn’t offer an annuity option in your 401(k) plan, you can purchase one separately using other assets.
Employer-Sponsored Retirement Plans
Speaking of the 401(k), consider that when this plan was first established in 1980, the marginal federal income tax rate was 43 percent. Today’s tax rates are historically quite low, so for the time being you might want to consider allocating more savings into a Roth IRA. This means you’ll pay taxes on that money at today’s low rates, but going forward it can grow tax-deferred and be withdrawn tax-free. But don’t leave money on the table if your employer offers a matching 401(k) contribution. Roth IRA contributions are limited to $7,000 (2020) and some deferred income can help reduce your taxes today – so plan accordingly.
By the same token, you may want to take advantage of today’s lower tax rates by converting at least some traditional IRA funds to a Roth or by making backdoor Roth IRA contributions. Be aware, however, that you must pay taxes on converted funds, so consider a gradual transition over multiple years to help you stay in a lower tax bracket.
Some market analysts are predicting a “new normal” going forward, which could provide some interesting investment opportunities. Ideas include new operating business models based on a largely remote workforce, population spread as people move out of cities into more affordable rural areas, and innovations borne out of newly created demand. While a buy-and-hold strategy is a common advice for equities, it’s important to stay flexible. As long as you remain within your customized asset allocation strategy, you might want to use your equity portion to explore new ideas that could offer higher return opportunities over the next decade.
If you’re anxious about sending your children back to school, you’re not alone. In fact, a recent poll from ABC News/Ipsos showed that 45 percent of parents don’t want their kids in the classroom at all. But whether your kids are in school or learning at home, there’s still plenty of worry to go around. How do you cope? Here are a few suggestions from a variety of counselors and mental health professionals that can help.
Express Your Feelings
Noticing the anxiety that’s going on inside is half the battle – then let it out. “I would encourage parents to share this feeling with their partners or other family and friends,” says Michael Consuelos, MD, a senior medical advisor with the mental health management platform NeuroFlow in Philadelphia. Simply releasing what you’re feeling can often take the power of it.
Teach Your Kids How to Navigate
This starts with talking to your kids about what social distancing is, what it looks like, and how to wash their hands thoroughly. Fran Walfish, PsyD, MFT, and a family and relationship psychotherapist in Beverly Hills, Calif., suggests making up real-life situations and getting your kids to “think in advance about what they would say or do to protect themselves while preserving a friendship.” For instance, a friend of your son stands too close to him and asks to borrow a ruler. How should he react? Or your daughter is eating lunch and a friend reaches in and takes a few chips from her Doritos bag. What should she do? You can probably come up with many other scenarios that help your kids figure out the best options for keeping safe.
Have Honest Conversations
Kathleen Rivera, MD, a psychiatrist who specializes in children and adolescents at Nuvance Health in Danbury, Conn., strongly suggests talking with your kids about the situation, no matter how young they are, and asking them how they’re feeling about the changes in their school environment. What things about school do you miss the most? How is this new learning set-up working for you? What are things you don’t miss about school? Claudia Kohner, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and creator of IntroDUCKtion to Very, Very Big Feelings app, says that if you have very young children, give them some colored pencils and a coloring book. Sit down with them and help them create a homemade book that describes the changes in their school setting and reflects their feelings that go along with it. Encouraging imaginative play with dolls and stuffed animals is also a great way to help your kids express what they’re going through.
In these uncertain times, it’s more important than ever to be kind to yourself – and not judge yourself for failing to cross everything off your to-do list. “You don’t have to do it all,” says Elizabeth Derickson, MSW, LCSW, RPT, a therapist with online therapy provider Talkspace. This is her No. 1 piece of advice for parents who are dealing with back-to-school anxiety. She suggests setting up realistic expectations and acknowledging that there will be both good days and bad days, and allowing yourself “to learn from the bad days, move on and rock those good days.”
In a few months, the landscape of your life might look radically different than it does today. That’s why being able to adapt to whatever new circumstance presents itself is key. According to Dr. Rivera, “Flexibility is the most important thing in this whole process.” Knowing you have every right to reverse your decisions is OK – and empowering.
Despite the seemingly never-ending stream of worries that inevitably crop up in our new abnormal, remember: the most constant thing in life is change. Things will get better.